Dustin Gawrylow is the managing director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network and a Bismarck resident.
Bismarck’s latest controversy can be summed up as follows:
A local artist wanted to practice his first amendment rights by hanging an old fashioned black and white portrait of an internationally known climate change zealot on the alley-facing exterior wall of a privately owned building with the permission and support of the property’s owner.
No one would have known this plan had not appeared on the most recent agenda of Bismarck’s Renaissance Zone Authority committee, which also has the role of serving as the city’s Downtown Design Review Committee for anything that is placed in the view of the public in a designated area of downtown Bismarck.
Full disclosure: I am a voting member of said committee, having been appointed in January 2019 by a 3-2 vote of the Bismarck City Commission. With that said, the views expressed in this article are mine alone and do not represent the views of anyone associated with the City of Bismarck.
This request to publicly mount and display the portrait of Greta Thunberg was going to be controversial the moment they saw the meeting agenda. This young girl’s quixotic crusade against climate change has been thoroughly ridiculed by conservative commentators on up to the president. The demonization of this misguided and politically exploited child has been rather sickening but has been par for the course in this era of presidentially sanctioned cyberbullying.
Furthermore, anyone with the most basic understanding of the constitution, specifically the 1st amendment, knew that even though the city had a review process, it was impossible to reject such a project without risking a lawsuit against the city for practicing unconstitutional “prior restraint”.
Within two days, the public mob had descended on social media with thousands of comments and posts declaring that the art should not be allowed in Bismarck. I saw with my own eyes some of these message threads in real time and was amazed by how many people posting under their real names were making veiled threats, and some not so veil predictions of vandalism.
It’s not much of a leap to believe that the folks involved with the art project were receiving private messages that were much worse. By the time the city meeting was held, the artist had pulled the project and was no longer seeking approval.
This entire episode has been a case of what is called “cancel culture”, an issue that conservatives like Ben Shapiro, moderates like Joe Rogan, and liberals like Dave Rubin have rightly made a focus of their work. The basic concept of “cancel culture” is to create fake outrage and motivate flocks of people on social media to try to destroy people’s businesses and livelihood for the mortal sin of using constitutionally protected right in ways the outraged people don’t like.
It is one thing to use your right to protest something you disagree with, but when you gin up fake outrage with the expressed goal of ruining people’s businesses – as was done to the bakery that rents the building in question in Bismarck – it has crossed the line.
Those of us who use the first amendment daily for our own livelihood tend to get protective when “mob rule” is used to stop others from using their own rights to do the same. So, if your reaction to what I am saying makes you think I am trying too hard to defend a bunch of liberals, know that the real problem is when those liberals try to do the same thing to us. It is best to take a “do unto others” approach when dealing with things you don’t like but are protected by the constitution.
In the days since this controversy broke, the artist in question has conducted a full-court press campaign to gain national attention, and to portray himself as a victim/martyr. Which will make the people who took aggressive action against the mural think that they were justified in their actions.
Note to the outraged people of Bismarck: when you give a liberal the chance to claim victim/martyr status, you are giving them more power than they would have had if they had just been allowed to go about their business. If you don’t like the “Liberal Agenda” stop giving them the power.
And a separate note to aspiring artists: if your goal is to make a name for yourself by triggering the loudest voices in a community to come down on you, so that you can become famous for it – don’t be surprised when you get what you asked for. You are likely making it much tougher for the next artist coming down the line to get a fair shake.